Removing Dams on the Musconetcong
A concise history of dams on the Musconetcong River and the rationale for working toward a free-flowing river
By Bill Leavens, MWA Board Secretary
One of the principal goals of your Association is removing the obsolete dams that impede water flow, degrade water quality, clog the river with invasive species, and block fish passage on the Musconetcong.
We have successfully removed the Gruendyke Mill and Seber dams in Hackettstown. In 2011, a broken dam in Riegelsville was removed along with an obsolete dam in Finesville. Currently, MWA and partners are removing the Hughesville Dam, and exciting and complex project. The removal of the Hughesville Dam opens the door for the removal of the Warren Glen Dam, located in the beautiful Musconetcong Gorge.
The Warren Glen Dam in Holland Township is the largest dam on the river. When it served a purpose, it provided hydroelectric power for the former Riegel Paper Mill. This 39-foot high monster blocks the river in the Musconetcong Gorge between Pohatcong (Warren County) and Holland Township (Hunterdon.) It is half owned by the State and by a corporation that presently owns the mill facility.
Preliminary discussions with owners and partners are under way to best determine how this dam can be breached - and how can that work be funded. The Warren Glen dam is the greatest impediment to water quality improvement on the lower Musconetcong. It will be difficult to remove due to its size, relatively remote location and the amount of sediment it holds.
All but two of the dams on the Musconetcong were built more than a century ago to provide cheap power that was not available from any other source. Before rural electrification there was a need to power large machinery for industrial and agricultural processes. Most of the dams provided power for equipment used in mills that turned raw materials - food grains and trees - into things that people needed - corn meal, flour and lumber.
At first waterwheels were used to drive shafts attached by elaborate systems of gears and more drive shafts and belts to spin millstones that ground grain. Other belts drove bolters, sifters, bucket elevators and equipment to move in-process and finished material through the mill. As technology and metallurgy advanced, efficient turbines replaced wooden water wheels to power the mechanism of commerce.
After the turn of the 20th century, electric motors or automotive engines were adapted to run the machines. The mills remained where they were next to the dams on the banks of the river because the mill buildings and equipment represented a substantial investment to the owner. But the dams soon became obsolete as electricity and Model T gasoline engines ran mill processes.
With the exception of two Musconetcong dams used to generate electricity for the Riegel Paper operations in Warren Glen, the rest of the dams have been obsolete for six or more decades.
Dams and the pools behind them may make a pretty scene to the casual observer with geese floating about amid pretty purple loosestrife flowers and the phragmites that look like feathered cattails. That lovely scene reveals a local environmental mess. When the dams were built they created artificial pools that changed the local landscape. Native plant, fish and bird species lost their natural home. The pool of standing water created behind a dam replaced natural environments - wetlands, riverbanks and marshes. The dam pool could not support the flora and fauna that formerly thrived there. Removing a dam is the first step in restoring the riverine environment.
The immediate problem with dam removal is that people who have grown up in a historical setting - looking at a certain vista and listening to a familiar soundscape - don't want change. We are sensitive to this because a part of the MWA mission is to preserve historic and cultural resources. However, public perception and resistance to change are the main forces behind public opposition to dam removal. We have sufficient experience from removing dams along the river that we can present a burbling stream view that anyone will love. One way to envision how the 'upstream' view will appear at any site when a dam is removed is to look 'downstream' at the rills and riffles of a natural ecosystem. It's all the same river.
Fortunately for the MWA, there are many property owners who are quite happy to work with us to remove their obsolete dams. Many dam owners are eager to erase a potential liability that might occur in the event of a dam failure during a storm event and flooding. Dealing with liability issues motivates dam owners. In one case a dam owner wanted to put the land into a State preservation program that will provide public access for recreation. However the State will not accept property with the dams in place - they don't want the liability either. The end product of these removals is more public access to the Musconetcong River for fishing, paddling, hiking and bird watching.
For our part, MWA is most concerned with maintaining and improving water quality. Removing the twenty or so obsolete dams on the Musconetcong is one way to achieve that. Water pooling behind a dam creates an unnatural habitat that attracts non-native plant life. The pools also allow water to heat significantly and that discourages fish breeding and migration. Sediment that quickly fills the pools can contain industrial and agricultural toxins that would normally be flushed down river and diluted. The heating of standing river water in a pool also promotes the growth of algae and other biological processes that remove oxygen from the water.
At the end of our dam removal experience, we will have a river that has the highest possible water quality. Kayakers and canoeists will enjoy safe passage with the elimination of portages and treacherous hydraulic traps below the dams. Fishermen will enjoy a greater variety of native fish to catch, possibly including shad. And the Musconetcong will be just as pretty and it will sound as tranquil as it does today. The Musconetcong qualified for Federal 'Wild and Scenic' designation just as it is now with the dams intact. It will be even wilder and more scenic when it is allowed to flow freely.